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March 31, 2021 1:18 pm

Why You Should Be Highly Alarmed by — and Yet Totally Ignore — the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism

avatar by Lars Fischer


A man waves an Israeli flag as he protests against the Israeli government as parliament resumes discussions to finalise legislation restricting demonstrations during the nation-wide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in Ein Hemed, near Jerusalem September 29, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

So many academic antisemites’ charters have been published in recent years, that it’s tempting simply to ignore the wrongly named Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism — it is in fact a declaration not on but of antisemitism — altogether. In this piece, I am going to engage in some massive cakeism by first explaining what the only two purposes of this initiative are, and why the publication of the declaration might well signal a qualitative leap — only then to tell you in no uncertain terms how important it is that you entirely ignore the declaration itself.

The Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism has precisely two purposes (and two purposes only):

  1. To declare the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, in secure borders she is realistically capable of defending, as a legitimate goal that has nothing to do with antisemitism.
  2. To obfuscate.

Do not let anybody tell you that there is anything more to the declaration, or that it is worth entering into any kind of detailed exegesis of this wretched document because there are supposedly more profound issues at stake.

Definitions and Definitions

There are definitions and definitions. The IHRA definition on antisemitism is called a working definition not (as some would have you believe) because it is really just a first rough draft that has a long way to go before it can claim any sort of legitimacy, but because it is a definition created for a very specific practical purpose. It is a definition one can work with in specific situations to judge whether specific forms of conduct are antisemitic or not. It does not even have anything to say as to what should follow if a specific form of conduct is antisemitic according to its criteria. It is quite intentionally not a historical, philosophical, political, sociological, metaphysical, explanatory, curative definition; it is — a working definition.

Does it answer all questions one could possibly have about the causes, significance, meanings, and implications of antisemitism, and what can best be done to combat it? It does not, nor is it meant to, and no one has ever claimed that it does. In short: the critics are absolutely right in stating that the IHRA definition does “only” what it is meant to do, and is incapable of satisfying any number of other demands. Which is akin to saying people shouldn’t take aspirin against a headache because it won’t make them any cleverer or increase their appreciation of Schubert.

We do have at our disposal a small number of canonical texts that come fairly close to offering the sort of much more encompassing definition of antisemitism that draws in a wealth of political, sociological, philosophical, and metaphysical considerations, and even has something to say about the strategies that are more likely than others to help combat antisemitism.

Your best bet is a conjoined reading of Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Elements of Antisemitism” and Moishe Postone’s “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism.” These two texts have been foundational for the most interesting and productive scholarship on antisemitism since the Second World War. It is, however, no coincidence that “Elements of Antisemitism,” as the title indicates, is an intentionally fragmentary text that throws light on antisemitism from a number of different vantages, while Postone’s text is a short chapter homing in on one particular key aspect. Those who would want to come up with an all-encompassing, systematic, and entirely coherent definition of antisemitism face a war on two fronts, and stand no conceivable chance of winning on either of them.

On the one hand, antisemitism is, firstly, constantly changing and yet, at its core, always the same. A fundamental dialectic exists between its consistent core and the ever-new forms of attribution and expression it develops in response to changing contexts. On their own terms, neither the insistence that it is fundamentally always the same nor the suggestion that every new form it takes is radically distinct come anywhere close to doing justice to the problem.

Secondly, there is arguably no other quite as deeply ingrained form of resentment that can translate quite as readily and lethally into an ideological and political force across all political divides as antisemitism. Against this backdrop, any attempt to define antisemitism in a manner that might apply with equal precision to all historical contexts and all its political, ideological, and casual proponents is a truly hopeless task. Nor, obviously, could there ever be an all-encompassing definition of antisemitism that would be equally agreeable to scholars who frame the topic in terms of mutually incompatible fundamental philosophical and epistemological assumptions about how the world works in general.

On the other hand, as long as the taboo on antisemitism has not dissipated entirely, no definition of antisemitism will ever be able to force an antisemite to turn around and say: yes, of course what I’m doing is antisemitic, so what? (Which is not to say that this may not very well be exactly what they think and know full well to be true.)

There is no reasoned debate to be had with antisemites, and the moment we acknowledge their premise that there is “a problem,” we might as well go home (or run to the safety shelter). The IHRA definition illustrates this very clearly indeed. It was created not least in response to the age-old caveat/excuse that one cannot definitively determine whether something is antisemitic because one cannot see into the heart and soul of the individual responsible to ascertain their underlying intention.

To this, the IHRA definition sought to respond by saying: fair enough, so let’s leave intentionality and all those cases which might arguably be too complex to judge without being able to ascertain intentionality to one side, and instead radically narrow the focus to just the most frequent and dangerous concrete forms of blatantly obvious antisemitism we currently encounter. To which the antisemites have simply responded by saying: even these blatantly obvious forms of antisemitism cannot be determined definitively unless one has a smoking gun to demonstrate intentionality beyond all reasonable doubt.

All this is profoundly ironic (if that is quite the right word), in that it tends to be the very same people who insist that all other forms of oppression are structural — and function regardless of individual intentions — and that all the members of certain groups of “privileged” people cannot but be oppressors, who also insist that antisemitism, by contrast, only exists where people consciously decide, firstly, that they would like to be antisemites and, secondly, are willing to say so.

Bizarrely, the authors and signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism insist that antisemitism is a form of racism (which it is not), thus erasing its specificity and doing their level best to obstruct any chance of genuinely understanding and therefore being able to combat it. And yet, at the same time, they credit it with being the only form of racism to which apparently nothing that applies to racism in general applies. Their utter inability to grasp this cognitive dissonance alone tells you that whatever the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism may be doing for the emotional and psychological needs of its authors and signatories, it most certainly has nothing to do with a serious scholarly approach to antisemitism.

If the authors and signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism actually did apply the same criteria they apply to antisemitism to racism, they would all be out of a job within 24 hours.

A Bit of Background: Jews as Conceptual Putty

Since their respective inceptions, both the Christian and Muslim civilizations have had a great deal of time and consideration to spare for “the Jew” as conceptual putty — as the embodiment of any number of theological, philosophical, metaphysical, ontological, and, increasingly, sociological and political concepts and principles.

More, and more consistently, than any other group, the right of the “Jew” — infinitely more often a product of the imagination than the object of knowledge or experience in any meaningful sense of the word — to exist has been determined in terms of principles applied with the same mercilessness in no other context (least of all one’s own), in terms of principles that cannot in fact be implemented perfectly under real-world conditions.

Just as the Jews’ vices are generally assumed to be earth-shatteringly total, so too the degree of virtue they would need to demonstrate in order to justify their existence needs to be equally total. Hence the significance but also the futility of the endless efforts at apologetics that run like a red thread through Jewish history since late antiquity. The right and freedom to put the Jews’ right to life up for grabs in order notionally to resolve conflicts in a clean and neat manner that cannot in fact be resolved in the real world and experience the satisfaction of resolution not attainable in reality at the expense of the Jews, has always been one of the columns on which Western and Muslim civilization rests.

Unless we assume, as some of the people who harangue me in the social media clearly do, that Jews are by some stroke of genetic good fortune automatically immune against the impact of this long-standing practice on the contemporary world, it is little wonder that they find themselves compelled to grapple with it too and can be prone to succumb to the apologetic urge it precipitates, its futility notwithstanding.

Whatever else the existence of Israel may do, it clearly militates against the possibility of being Jewish merely on an entirely ethereal and entirely virtuous conceptual level, and it mires Jewishness with all the messiness and unpleasantness of not just theoretical but also practical political existence in the real world. (None of this is my idea, incidentally; you’ll find it all outlined in texts Jean Améry wrote half a century ago.) Would it be a dream come true if Israel were a socialist utopia sharing its tiny part of the Middle East in eternal peace and never-ending love with its Arab neighbors? You bet. But if that’s what you need it to be, regardless of the hand it has been dealt, in order to make your peace with the existence of the world’s only Jewish state, you are merely reproducing the age-old dictate that Jews need to embody ideals and embody them totally to earn the right to exist. Only feeling able to defend Israel if it behaves in a way in which no state in its position can afford to behave is just another, particularly perverse, form of apologetics.

The IHRA Definition and Israel

This brings us to the only serious “controversy” regarding the IHRA definition that has ever got anyone riled up. It concerns the question of what one can and cannot legitimately say and do about Israel (I hesitate to write say and do because all speech acts are, of course, indeed acts). In this respect, the IHRA definition is predicated on two fundamental premises.

Firstly, it takes it for granted that vilifying Israel in ways that only make sense when applying double standards to the Jewish state or that tap into already well-established antisemitic tropes is a form of antisemitism. Secondly, it takes it for granted that denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in secure borders she is realistically capable of defending is a form of antisemitism.

It is worth clarifying at this point that the premise here is not (or at least need not be) that any and every group that formulates a claim to its own state is entitled to one (which would be bizarrely unrealistic). The crucial point is that the Jewish state does already exist. There is a world of difference between musing hypothetically about the issue of whether one would create the state of Israel in its current form if it did not already exist, on the one hand, and calling for and/or helping to facilitate its destruction now that it has already been established and existed for the best part of a century, on the other.

Precisely in order to avoid the alleged risk to which critics keep pointing, a clause has specifically been included to clarify that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.“ I would note in passing that I have repeatedly pressed critics to give me at least one example either of something they would want to say but feel precluded from saying by the IHRA definition, or a case in which somebody has said something non-antisemitic and yet suffered some sort of sanction as a result of the IHRA definition.

Not once have I received an answer.

To avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, I would add, however, that the people who feel that they have things to say that are not covered by IHRA definition’s explicit disclaimer are in all likelihood entirely right in assuming that their statements would be considered antisemitic by the standards of the IHRA definition — and quite rightly so.

The claim that calling for and/or helping to facilitate the destruction of Israel is antisemitic is “controversial” only in the sense that those who want to do so rightly feel targeted by the IHRA definition. Just as stalkers would presumably want to take issue with the criteria laid out in legislation that occasionally trips them up, antisemites aren’t too keen on the IHRA definition. This speaks not against the definition but against the antisemites, and the definition would not be doing its job if it did not massively annoy them.

It is in order to overcome this annoyance that antisemites have now proceeded to write a new definition that suits their purposes, and seeks to legitimize their conduct towards Israel while at the same time delegitimizing the use of the IHRA definition to protect both Israel and Jews the world over.

In and of itself, their definition has no more immediate effect than the IHRA definition. Even when the latter is adopted by organizations and institutions, it does no more than define what is antisemitic. What, if any, sanctions antisemitic conduct should carry is beyond the remit of the definition. What the IHRA definition has done, however, is establish clear criteria. While disputes over what is and isn’t antisemitic rarely lead anywhere, statements as to what is antisemitic by the standards of the IHRA definition can be made without any significant ambiguity. Hence the decision of those who know full well that they consistently fall foul of the IHRA definition, and who do so quite intentionally, to create a counter-definition in order simply to be able to say: ah yes, but there’s more than one definition and the other one exonerates me.

What the authors and signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism are hoping for is that endless debates about this or that turn of phrase in either definition will henceforth distract attention from their outright commitment to the legitimacy of the call for Israel’s destruction.

It is therefore crucial not to play by their rules, not to allow them to tie you up in pointless debates about their pseudo-arguments, but to denounce them single-mindedly and ruthlessly for their attempt to undermine the struggle against antisemitism and Israel’s future and security.

I would note in passing that however one might want to characterize the signatories collectively, arguably the single smallest group among them, in terms of their main discipline and core expertise, is that of genuine scholars of antisemitism.

Those familiar with the field will know that major institutions devoted specifically to the study of antisemitism have for years been controlled by scholars who use the millions at their disposal to sponsor antisemitism denial and promotion at every turn. Even so, their formal (as opposed to their moral) qualification to speak on antisemitism obviously cannot be drawn into question. The fact remains, however, that the overwhelming majority of the signatories are individuals owning up to a specific opinion about antisemitism who happen to be academics, not academics making a statement about antisemitism in their capacity as scholars.

However, this may well be the very point at which we need to be particularly alarmed by the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism. There is after all, a world of difference between criticizing the IHRA definition or mumbling vague approval when your colleagues have a moan about it, on the one hand, and actually writing and signing a counter-definition, between lamenting its alleged shortcomings and seeking to displace it altogether. The publication of the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism would seem to indicate that we have now well and truly reached a point at which most academics, acting on their fancy at any given point in time, unquestioningly align themselves, not just passively but actively, with the antisemites without feeling the slightest compunction that doing so might be in the least bit problematic. I have argued before that most people in fact define antisemitism not on the basis of any sort of analysis (scholarly or otherwise) but simply go with the flow in terms of what’s in and what’s out, and what their friends think and the unpleasantness that taking one position or the other might evoke.

Let me illustrate this with a specific example. Some years ago, I used a book review to lay into Robert Wistrich, then arguably the best connected and most powerful scholar of antisemitism on the planet. He had published a massive book which was essentially a rehash of work that was, in part, decades old, which he presented again either without paying any attention to the scholarship that had been published in the intervening years or simply dismissing it, perfunctorily, out of hand in a manner that demonstrated beyond any doubt that he had not in fact read it.

Given the amount of power and patronage in his gift, I argued, this was irresponsible. Not least, his conduct would ultimately weaken the academic contribution to the struggle against antisemitism because it encouraged and/or compelled scholars to stay within certain parameters that would make it more difficult to address the ongoing evolution of antisemitism appropriately. At the time, I received a small number of messages, most of them of the “I’m so glad somebody has finally said something, I would never have had the courage to do so myself” kind. With a naivety at which I can only marvel with the benefit of hindsight, I assumed the authors of these messages shared my academic criticism of Wistrich’s approach to scholarship. In fact, with one exception, they were predicated on the assumption that I was taking issue with Wistrich’s politics. Wistrich was an ardent Zionist and inveterate critic of leftist and Muslim antisemitism. There is something quite comical about this constellation: throughout the two decades of what I thought at the time was my fledgling academic career in the UK, nobody really wanted to be as unkind as to suspect me of not being an Israel-hating antisemite — while I, in turn, rarely wanted to be so unkind as to think that everyone else was. The mutual misunderstanding was total.

I recall this incident for the following reason: Wistrich was outraged at my criticism and vigorously and at great length put me in my place. The matter clearly caused something of a stir, and one particular fairly prominent Jewish Studies colleague with whom I’d been in touch on and off not only stopped talking to me, but in fact contacted some of my colleagues in London to inquire as to what the hell I thought I was up to, having a go at Wistrich in this way. The colleague who mentioned this to me explained that she’d told the inquiring colleague that she couldn’t understand it either; she too considered Wistrich a friend and couldn’t comprehend the nature of my criticism. Of these two colleagues, one, who has since died, went on to circulate a video in which she dismissed as totally absurd the suggestion that the UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had an antisemitism problem. The other is now among the signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism. Neither of them were/are by any stretch of the imagination scholars of antisemitism, and one can only assume that, on this issue, they basically sign(ed) wherever their friends told/tell them to. While we can safely assume that Wistrich would have had both of these “friends” for breakfast it would seem that the habit of coming out for rather than against antisemitism on the behest of one’s friends and in the face of actual or assumed, conscious or unconscious, peer pressure is snowballing out of control.

In conclusion: you have every reason to be highly alarmed by the fact that the Jewish Declaration on Antisemitism has been published, but under no circumstances should you waste any of your precious time and resources on the declaration itself; you’d only end up being drawn into unintentionally doing the antisemites’ bidding for them.

Lars Fischer is a scholar of antisemitism and runs The History Practice in Berlin.

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